Face to Face with Ip Shing Hing JP, Peter Sit, Vincent Liang JP and Prof. Michael Wilkinson

The Hong Kong Law Society maintains a Roll of Honour, which consists of the names of solicitors who have distinguished themselves through their service to the Law Society or its Council, by their contributions to the development of the legal profession in Hong Kong or to the practice of law. This year, three solicitors were admitted to the Roll of Honour: Peter Sit, Ip Shing Hing and Vincent Liang.

Meanwhile, Honorary Membership of the Law Society is awarded to non-members of the Law Society who have made significant contribution to the development of the legal profession. Professor Michael Wilkinson has become the second Honorary Member admitted by the Law Society for his tremendous contribution in legal education and generally in the legal field in Hong Kong.

In this cover feature, the three Roll of Honour Inductees, and the newly admitted Honorary Member, reflect on their careers, their experiences, and the contributions they have made.


‘Work whole-heartedly and honestly’, says former Law Society President  Ip Shing Hing JP

Legal work can be interesting and fulfilling. For Ip Shing Hing JP, one of three legal professionals recognized this year with membership to the Roll of Honour of the Law Society of Hong Kong, the profession is about much more than money or recognition.

Ip studied in three educational institutions in Hong Kong: Law at the University of Hong Kong, dispute resolution at City University of Hong Kong and electronic commerce at Open University of Hong Kong. He decided to study law after high school.

“Honestly speaking, the study of law was not my first choice then, but my exam results led me to the study of law at the end,” Ip says.

Ip is a solicitor, notary public and China-appointed testing officer. He was admitted as a solicitor in Hong Kong in 1981 and England in 1984.

He has handled some interesting cases. In one particular instance he went against the opinion of a “very eminent counsel” in a litigation appeal.

“With unquestionably strong support from the client and other distinguished counsel, we managed to win the case at the end of the day. The case really tells me that a good practitioner has to be very dedicated and hardworking and this can lead to a very different result,” Ip says.

LAW SOCIETY PRESIDENT

He served on the Law Society Council from 1991 to 2002, was vice-president from 1998 to 2002 and president from 2002 to 2004.

“At the beginning of my career in the Council, I was very fortunate to see our then President Mr. Roderick Woo’s great efforts in challenging the perception of solicitor rights and their image in the eyes of the public,” Ip said. “For good or bad, barristers are described as ‘big lawyers’ while solicitors are just described as lawyers in Cantonese. Furthermore, solicitors did not enjoy right of audience in all levels of courts.”

Woo’s work helped even the playing field for solicitors.

Ip’s stints as vice-president and president came during challenging times for the Law Society, and the legal profession at large.

Changes in 1997 led to the removal of a mandatory scale fee for conveyance work.

“After that, our then President Mr. Anthony Chow rode the storm very tactfully and elegantly,” Ip says. “I do also appreciate very much the direction (he steered), he encouraged our fellow practitioners to divert their practice both in exploring new practice areas.”

“Indeed, the practice of Civil Celebrant was introduced by the next President, Mr Herbert Tsoi.”

“Then, during my term, I continued all those good work already formulated by my predecessors. Our Council continued to promote our legal practice to other jurisdictions and facilitated more cooperation with practitioners from other jurisdictions,” says Ip.

His term witnessed multiple crises.

“First came the SARS epidemic. Then came the collapse of HIH in Australia resulting in asking our fellow practitioners to contribute to our Professional Indemnity Fund,” says Ip. “We did not have many options and the call of contribution was really one option I hated to do. I did fail to convince all members then that was the only viable option.”

Eventually, Council members and the Secretariat managed to weather the storm and “I am very happy now that the Fund has developed very well and should be one big bulwark to our practice.”

ACTIVE PARTICIPANT

As president, he had a couple of key goals. One was to facilitate the push by practitioners to expand in other jurisdictions. Another was to strengthen the Law Society’s Secretariat.

“The fact that we still run our profession ourselves despite changes in many other jurisdictions is already very satisfactory to me,” Ip says.

Ip has been very active with the Law Society. Besides sitting on the Council, he has participated in 50 different bodies.

“The fact that I can contribute to the profession, though maybe very insignificant, always makes me happy.”

Ultimately, Ip advises other practitioners to look beyond making money or being recognised by others.

“The fact that one can work whole-heartedly and honestly for their clients is far more important,” he says. This mindset “can bring much job satisfaction.”

He says practitioners should be honest with themselves, their colleagues and even adversaries and pay full attention to their work, including looking for “lawful but out of the box solutions.”

On the other hand, he says, legal professionals should not shy away from difficult work, even if it means having to learn fast.

In the end, he says, life is about being open-minded, being ready to accept new challenges and appreciating everything around you. 


‘Do as much as you are able’ has defined Peter Sit’s stellar career

He has worked hard, been aggressive and chosen to remain independent. Throughout a career that is now approaching the end of its fourth decade, Peter Sit has seen headline-grabbing highs and controversial lows, and always stayed at the forefront of Hong Kong law.

Sit is one of three legal professionals recognized this year with membership to the Roll of Honour of the Law Society of Hong Kong.

Sit’s parents moved to Hong Kong from Jiangsu Province in 1949, escaping the Civil War. He was born in 1953, the youngest of three children. He studied at some of Hong Kong’s best primary and secondary schools before being admitted to what was then the Law Department of the Social Science Faculty of the University of Hong Kong. He eventually earned an LLB and a PCLL.

“Before I applied for admission into the HKU Law Department, I had no idea what ‘studying law’ was about,” he says.

He was considering studying architecture but “my school principal took a look at my application and said rather firmly that I should apply for the Law Department instead.”

The Law Department was only three years old at the time. He was admitted to the 1972/3 freshman class.

Sit started his firm with two other partners in July 1981, after three-and-a-half years of practice and when he was just 28. “The first year was quite chaotic, when we suddenly found that we had to care for everything ourselves,” says Sit.

COMPLEX SITUATION

Through the decades, the breadth of his work has been impressive sometimes controversial and occasionally ground-breaking.

In 1996, he gained a fair amount of renown chairing the Working Party on Publicity on Sale of China Properties in Hong Kong, which emerged after a raft of investments from Hong Kong people into sometimes dubious Mainland real estate schemes.

It was an interesting time and a complex situation.

“In the 1990s, as it is today, Hong Kong people liked to invest in Mainland properties,” Sit recalls. “In those days, Hong Kong’s own property market was already very mature and all transactions would go through solicitors.”

Hong Kong solicitors were known as reliable and trustworthy but Hong Kong buyers, perhaps relying on that reputation, “paid little attention to two vital differences when it came to buying Mainland properties.”

“First, it was not the duty of Hong Kong solicitors to do independent verifications whether or not a Mainland developer was financially capable of completing his building project. Second, whether to release the buyer’s purchase money to his Mainland developer depended on the contract between him and the Mainland developers,” Sit says.

“It is now very different, but during those old days, there were lots of dubious land projects in the second or third tier towns and cities in the Pearl River Delta,” he adds.

To lend an air of respectability to the projects, some developers would ask Hong Kong solicitors to witness signatures and receive payments on their behalf.

Thousands of units were sold and some projects failed.

“They were given the nickname of ‘rotten end buildings’ meaning they were not completed or there was no hop for them to be completed when the so-called developers had absconded.”

Through 1995 and 1996, victims looked to the Law Society for justice and their money back. They wanted to know why Hong Kong lawyers had not protected their interests and a public outcry ensued.

There were three considerations. One was disciplinary, penalizing the lawyers would not necessarily have been fair given that it was the buyers that had gone off on their own to make deals and now were blaming the lawyers. Second, the situation put at risk the reputation of the profession’s self-regulatory structure. Third, the problem highlighted the need for more educations about the risks of investing.

By taking a three-pronged approach of education programs, negotiating with mainland authorities and quickly investigating some 130 complaints against Hong Kong solicitors, “the scandal was resolved quite well”.

FIERCELY INDEPENDENT

A strong believer in the importance of independent local law firms, Sit never merged his firm with any of the international firms that extended invitations.

In 1995 he was asked to stand in the election of the council of the Law Society and was later involved in all aspects of the Law Society’s disciplinary work. He was Chairman of the Standing Committee on Compliance for three years.

Sit has also been involved in education, as an examiner and lecturer.

He has acted for some of Hong Kong’s highest officials, including former chief executives and financial secretaries – including in what became known as the “Car Gate” scandal in 2003. He also acted for the only defendant to be found innocent in the 128-day jury trial in brought on by the Independent Commission Against Corruption involving former Chief Secretary Rafael Hui. There have been many others.

His advice to practitioners?

“Never think your client is unreasonable. Most of our clients today are very sophisticated even though they may not have gone through any formal education,” Sit says.

He adds that his motto in life is: “In Latin, quantum potes, tantum aude. In English, ‘dare to do as much as you are able.” 


Vincent Liang JP: ‘Our prime purpose is to help others’

Property law can keep a legal practitioner very busy, particularly in Hong Kong.

Vincent Liang JP, one of three legal professionals recognized this year with membership to the Roll of Honour of the Law Society of Hong Kong, has built a long and successful career around property law. He has worked for government and in private practice, served in committees and has been directly involved in the evolution of the profession and how it serves clients in this often-complicated field.

“There may be many pitfalls in a conveyancing transaction, and property law in Hong Kong can be complicated,” says Liang. “A property lawyer must be diligent in refreshing his knowledge of the relevant law and conduct every case with utmost care and with his client’s best interest at heart.”

Liang was born in 1945 in Kunming, where his father was working for an oxygen manufacturing company. His family moved to Hong Kong after the Second World War.

A good student from an early age, he sat the Joint Primary Schools Examination and received an Education Department scholarship as one of the top 150 candidates for secondary school education.

INTEREST IN PROPERTY LAW

After matriculation, he joined the Land Office of the Registrar General’s Department, which was later sub-divided into the Land Registry and the Legal Advisory and Conveyancing Office of the Lands Department.

“The work involved was generally related to property law and I became interested in the practice of law,” Liang recalls.

That was when he first became interested in the field. Encouraged by his colleagues, he sat Part I of the Law Society’s Qualifying Examination. At the time, Hong Kong University did not yet have a Faculty of Law but he was offered a scholarship to the College of Law in England and to serve an articled clerkship with a London firm of solicitors.

He returned to Hong Kong in 1975 as a qualified solicitor in England. He served as an Assistant Crown Council in the Civil Division of the Attorney General’s Chambers and then went back to the Land Office.

Throughout a busy career he has seen a number of changes in property law, including the Conveyancing and Property Ordinance (Cap. 219) in 1984, the first Land Titles Bill in 1994 and the Land Titles Ordinance (Cap. 585) in 2004. Changes to stamp duty requirements and the Residential Properties (First-hand Sales) Ordinance (Cap. 621) in 2013.

Property law has been an anchor to his career.

“Our firm Lo & Lo has a long history of acting for land developers,” says Liang. “I am fortunate that I was able to follow such tradition and participated in the planning and development of many housing projects, which involve different skill sets, such as interpretation and modification of Government leases, estate development planning, preparation of various conveyancing documents, etc.”

“One of the greatest challenges I faced in my career was to oppose on behalf of the Law Society the passing of certain parts of the Legal Services Legislation (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill at the Legislative Council in 1996,” Liang adds. “Our effort paid off and the Legislators actually voted down the proposal to abolish the scale fee provisions in the Legal Practitioners Ordinance.”

Unfortunately, the Law Society’s own proposal to allow for solicitors and clients to make agreements on remuneration also failed to pass.

LAW SOCIETY INVOLVEMENT

Liang stood for election to the Council of the Law Society in 1993 and was elected. He has been involved with the Hong Kong Solicitors Indemnity Fund Ltd, with the Council, the Mainland Legal Affairs committee, the Property Committee, and the Land Use Planning committee. He has sat on the Working Party on Land Titles Bill, served on the Council of the Duty Lawyer Service, the Bilingual Legal System Committee, the Land Registry Joint Standing Committee and the General Committee of the Coalition of Service Industries.

Liang’s list of roles on various Law Society committees is long and reflects a wide range of interests in the profession, the Boy Scouts and the Hong Kong Tennis Association.

“I am happy with my career and would not wish to do anything differently,” says Liang. “Housing plays an important part in life and I am proud to be a solicitor specializing in property law.”

“I think Hong Kong has one of the best legal systems in the world,” he adds. “The administration of justice is fair and efficient, with generally competent judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers alike, and the common law being practised is well suited to Hong Kong as one of the top international finance centres. All the young aspiring lawyers should bear this in mind and endeavour to uphold and safeguard our unique legal system.”

“My motto in life is ‘our prime purpose in this life to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them,” he concludes.


Prof. Michael Wilkinson looks back on ’a very satisfying career’

One of the most respected educators in Hong Kong, Professor Michael Wilkinson has been teaching law at the University of Hong Kong for 34 years.

His work has not only earned him the respect of his students over more than three decades but also that of his peers. This year, the Law Society of Hong Kong admitted Michael as an Honourary Member for Life, a rare accolade.

Michael is an avid researcher, teacher and (formerly) football player. He is currently undergoing chemotherapy for blood and lung cancer but expects to recover soon and continue teaching.

An only child, Michael studied at one of the best institutions in the UK – the University of Cambridge. Having gained his law degree and master’s degree, he was admitted as a barrister of the Inner Temple. He then started to pursue a PhD in Ancient Greek and Roman Law at Cambridge but a week into his PhD, he was unexpectedly offered a teaching post at Cambridge and so began his career in legal education. Amongst his first tutorial group was a young Chinese student Andrew Li who, of course, subsequently became our much respected Chief Justice.

“I was intending to go into practice when I finished my PhD but Fitzwilliam College offered me a job that was too good to refuse,” says Michael. “I have never regretted my decision and have loved teaching all my life.”

Having signed up as British aid, he then spent 13 years teaching in Africa, first in Uganda and, after being expelled as a British spy, in Malawi. In 1983, Michael, who was fast running out of funds to pay the school fees for his four children, moved to Hong Kong to take up the position of Senior Lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s law faculty.

A CAREER IN HONG KONG

“I have probably taught 60 to 70 percent of all lawyers in Hong Kong,” says Professor Wilkinson. “And the best part of my work is interacting with my students.”

A big area of focus (and revenue!) for him has been preparing students for the Overseas Lawyers Qualification Examination (OLQE) in Hong Kong. Indeed one year whilst teaching OLQE students he collapsed and spent the next 18 months on “beta blockers”.

During his time in Hong Kong, Michael observes that the legal education system has evolved in two significant ways.

“First, there is now a much clearer delineation between the undergraduate and professional courses so that the undergraduate curriculum concentrates on the theory, principles and rules of law whereas the PCLL concentrates on the necessary skills of lawyering. Secondly, there has been a remarkable increase in student numbers.”

There were about 60 students in the undergraduate and PCLL courses when Michael first started teaching at HKU, but now the number has jumped to over 300.

“This significant increase in student numbers is inevitable but it carries a downside for teachers as they no longer know many students personally. I attended the Bar Scholarship Award Ceremony earlier this week and five of my best students received an award. Sadly, I only recognized two of them! But I still invite my tutorial groups to my flat in Discovery Bay for dinner so I do get to know at least a small percentage of my students.”

Over many years the Hong Kong Law Society has invited Michael to serve on many committees.

“The friendship, the warmth, the kindness and the tolerance of my ignorance that I have received from my fellow committee members has been so great,” says Michael. “I have learnt so much from the Law Society committees; their members have really first-class legal brains coupled with considerable experience of practice and I have learnt so much listening to their views.”

WRITING AND TEACHING

Michael is also a prolific writer. He is particularly interested in conveyancing, civil procedure and legal ethics.

Some of his most significant publications include Hong Kong Conveyancing Law and Practice and Cases and Materials in 10 loose-leaf volumes with Judith Sihombing, Halsbury’s Laws of Hong Kong Civil Procedure in 4 volumes; the Professional Conduct of Lawyers in Hong Kong in five loose-leaf volumes and Advocacy and the Litigation Process in Hong Kong.

Indeed, he says that keeping his writing up to date occupies more of his time than teaching and has become a non-stop exercise.

“Writing is my main occupation, I probably write five to six hours every day of the week,” he says. “I think last year was the hardest year I’ve ever had work-wise – there was so much going on particularly on the writing front, so many significant judgments coming from courts. Each new case is exciting and presents a challenge: has it changed the law? is the judgment correct?”

When Michael arrived in Hong Kong in 1983, there were very few law books for Hong Kong students.

He says that he wants his books to be “useful to practitioners and judges, that’s really the audience I am writing for. But I also, with my fellow authors, produce student editions of these books; unfortunately, they tend to be very expensive and out of the reach of many students.”

“When I first arrived I was asked to teach subjects for which there was no textbook available. For example, the first book I wrote was about advocacy since I was asked to teach the subject but found that there was no local text available. The same subsequently with civil procedure.”

SATISFYING CAREER

When asked what advice he would give to someone considering teaching law in Hong Kong, as a career Michael says without hesitation: “Go for it! It’s a very satisfying career. You can sleep well at night.”

However, he also points out that academia has changed over the past decade. “Publish or perish” has morphed from a desideratum to an imperative.

“For me personally research and teaching are symbiotic; they feed off each other.”

And for those who choose practice, he says: “A career in law is very fulfilling. The preservation of the rule of law is of fundamental importance to Hong Kong and we need lawyers with integrity and bravery to make sure we uphold the rule of law. ”

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